Thursday, September 27, 2012

FFB: A Gentle Murderer - Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Scribners, 1951, 1st US edition
A murderer confesses his crime to a priest who is deeply troubled by what he hears and decides to find out who the confessor is and what exactly happened. Sounds a bit like that Montgomery Clift/Alfred Hitchcock movie, doesn't it? But it's the basic plot of Dorothy Salisbury Davis' third novel A Gentle Murderer (1951), yet another under-appreciated cornerstone in crime fiction. While it still clings to the basics of a detective novel Davis is more interested in the effect of the crime on the characters.

Father Duffy is almost as conflicted as the haunted young man who confesses his crime. He wants the unknown man to go to the police, promises he will visit him and help him make right of what is clearly sinful. Only when the priest learns of a bludgeoning death of a prostitute, coincidentally one of his parishioners, does he realize that the killer may have been the anonymous young man in his confessional. After all, there was all that obsessive talk of a hammer that disturbed the priest. Father Duffy turns sleuth and aims to learn as much as he can about the victim. In doing so he eventually learns the identity of the young man confessor and why he committed such a brutal crime.

The novel is built around the framework of a detective novel with a simultaneous police investigation playing out as Father Duffy does his more humanistic detective work. Occasionally the two stories meet and priest and lieutenant share with each other what they have learned. All the while the emphasis is always on character and behavior and not the plot or the crime.

Davis' strength is in character work, especially women like Mrs. Galli and her daughter Kate, and a masterful replication of the Irish voice. Her own background as the daughter of Irish immigrants reveals itself in the many Irish Catholic characters and their unique manner of speaking. In addition to following the thoughts and actions of Father Duffy, Lt. Holden, and Sgt. Goldberg, Davis gives us a third point of view -- that of Tim Brandon. As with nearly every modern crime novel on our shelves today we get Tim's entire back story which slowly uncovers the reasons he has become a killer. It is this unusual triple point of view narrative and the focus on character rather than plot that makes A Gentle Murderer a stand out in the evolution of the crime novel. No surprise then that it appears on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone, a list of notable detective novels of the 20th century.

Some of the psychology is perhaps too Freudian for a modern reader's tastes, but nonetheless there is a sophistication in the presentation of a man whose dysfunctional homelife leads him to a life of crime. It is sympathetic portrait Davis paints and never with lurid colors.

6 comments:

  1. Looks like A gentle rather than THE gentle...can't have too many, after all!

    I've always enjoyed the Davis work I've read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, I got it right once at the end, Todd. All instances of THE in the title are now replaced with A. Also, my typo in the murderer's name has been fixed. (Tim not Tom)

      Delete
  2. Definite or indefinite article aside, afraid I have ever read the lady's work though - thanks very much for the review. The basis for the Hitchcock movie, a play by Paul Anthelme', predates this novel by a nearly 50 years I think. Eever see the wonderful Robert lePage movie LE CONFESSIONAL about the making of the film?

    ReplyDelete
  3. In researching the source material for the Hitchcock film I was taken aback that the play was written in the early 1900s. Did not even know such a documentary existed about I Confess. Time to go hunting for that. Is that the Canadian theater artist Robert LePage? If it is I'll also mention I think his theater work is an amazing blend of moviemaking and stagecraft. He's a real visionary working in an age of commercial fluff. Whenever he comes to Chicago I go out of my way to see whatever it is he's dreamed up. His play about Frank Lloyd Wright is one I'll remember for a long time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi John (and as always, apologies for all my typos ...) - LE CONFESSIONAL is not a documentary by a fiction film from 1995, set partly in Montreal in the 50s at the time that Hitchcock was making the film and partly in the (then) present day. It is indeed by that Robert LePage and is very typical of his dazzling story-telling techniques, co-starring Lothaire Bluteau and Kristin Scott Thomas. If you can get hold of it I really recommend it. Trailer here:
      http://youtu.be/Z-xmrUC_Ugw

      Delete
  4. You can never have too much Freud in a detective novel. :)

    ReplyDelete

This is not a message board. It is a blog where we can discuss vintage mystery and supernatural fiction. Please confine your comments to the post or vintage books and their authors. Any other remarks will be deleted. If you want to address me personally about anything other than the post, send me an email. The email link is found on my Profile page.